Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

Founder Feature:
Spencer Hoddeson of Gay Water

Meet Gay Water: the vodka soda brand on a mission to increase queer representation in the beverage industry

Founded by Spencer Hoddeson, Gay Water — a canned vodka soda brand — is a mission-driven business first and foremost. Spencer says, “Our mission is to create representation for the queer community in spaces where you don’t typically see it such as bars, liquor stores, restaurants, and concert venues. These are places where queer people both work and shop, but aside from a pride flag during Pride Month, they don’t typically signal safeness or inclusivity to [LGBTQ+] employees and customers.”

For the unfamiliar, “Gay Water,” Spencer explains, “is a colloquialism for a vodka soda in the queer community, so that is exactly what our product is. It is a canned vodka soda with 4 % ABV, 80 calories, and three ingredients. It’s super light, fruit-forward, and flavorful.”

Why Gay Water?

Before launching Gay Water, Spencer had spent the majority of his career in media and tech. He says, “I had been running the brand marketing team at Yahoo, but towards the end, I was starting to feel stagnant. I started interviewing at other tech companies, but then I thought, ‘Do I want to do something else in tech and media? Do I want to go back to business school? Or maybe there’s this third door, which would be to start something of my own.” At the same time, Spencer had begun to build a platform for himself as a content creator in the queer community. “I knew I wanted to leverage my platform to create something meaningful for the community I had curated,” he says.

While on a ‘funemployment’ trip with a close friend with ten years of experience in food and beverage, the pair began talking about queer representation in the beverage industry. He says, “She had not come across a lot of queer people or queer products in the space, which was surprising.” This fact was particularly surprising, Spencer explains, as the queer community represents a significant portion of the consumer base. “When you look at the research, the queer community has doubled in size in the last 10 years, and it’s now bigger than the Asian American population in the US. On top of that, it’s a community that drinks more than the heterosexual community at a two to four times rate.” With this knowledge in mind, Spencer explains, “I saw an opportunity for a mission-driven brand to exist in this space and to redefine for the beverage industry that queer consumers exist, and we’re looking for representation year-round.”

Developing Gay Water

Since the idea’s inception, it took Spencer another two years to get Gay Water on the market. However, during this time, he was not shy about talking to anyone and everyone about his burgeoning brand, including his following on TikTok.

This tactic paid off, as Spencer was not only able to build excitement around the brand but also to connect with key partners and advisors. He says, “Crazily enough, someone who lives in my building recognized [my apartment] and sent me a DM. I thought, ‘This is going to be awkward when I run into him in the hallways and didn’t respond to his message.’ We ended up meeting for coffee, and it turns out he is also queer and had started a beverage company. Mark Cuban invested in them on Shark Tank, and they had been acquired. That person ended up being our foundational operations person. He connected us to a formulator, co-packer, and got the wheels turning. That was how we got started from an operational and supply chain standpoint.”

The intersection of brand and product

Moving beyond the operational, Spencer worked with a queer Japanese Hawaiian designer to develop the brand identity. They had previously worked together on a Pride Month project at Yahoo, where they had been limited to Yahoo’s strict legacy brand guidelines. On this project, however, Spencer was able to give his designer complete creative freedom to be as colorful, joyful, and gay as desired. Spencer explains, “Part of coming to food and beverage space with less experience is being able to look at industry trends and standards with an outsider’s perspective. A lot of brands shy away from embracing color, fun, and playfulness, but I wanted to create something that popped off on the shelves. My personal experience is that a lot of brands are typically two or three-tone, and their packaging is clean and simple. But you lose some of that playfulness and connection with your consumer when you go down the route, and, particularly for Gay Water, we wanted the branding to align with our customers.”

Going further, Spencer says, “I have an ideology: There’s the brand and there’s the product, and then the ones that do it the best are at the intersection. That’s what we’re trying to do — have a great product, but have an awesome brand…If there are 20 espresso martini in a can brands lined up together, the brand is what’s going to differentiate you and create a connection with your customers. Unless you’re launching a completely new product category, building your brand, especially as an emerging brand in the space, is very important.”

So far, it seems like Spencer’s ideology has paid off. He says, “Today we have about 70 retail locations and growing, and we’re distributed in New York, New Jersey, and California. This past month was the first month we ever did paid advertising. We built a community of over 125,000 followers across social media, email subscribers, etc. before we invested a dollar in paid marketing.”

Founder stress and future plans

While there are countless challenges for brands in the beverage space, Spencer’s greatest obstacle has been on a more personal level. He says, “It’s the unsexy part about being a founder that no one talks about — the crazy amount of stress and anxiety and pressure you put on yourself”

“Most people shut off at 6 or 7, but as a founder, you’re never shutting off. You can be out with friends and suddenly start thinking about it and get stressed and start panicking and everyone else is laughing and having fun and you’re just standing there like, ‘Why am I thinking about this?’ I wake up every other day asking, ‘Is this a good idea? Is this business going to succeed?”

Despite his personal fears, Spencer is constantly reminded by his community and collaborators that people are excited about Gay Water. “It’s hard for us as founders to see because I’ve looked at the brand and the product for almost two years now…But when I get feedback from a customer or jump on a meeting and someone’s super stoked about the product, I remind myself that there is so much love for Gay Water out there.”

Spencer is also a firm believer in spreading the wealth and encourages his fellow founders to reach out to him on the Startup CPG Slack. He says, “I’m always happy to answer any questions about the beverage space, building a community online, or anything else. I’m always an open resource for new founders. I think it’s so important to pay it forward.”

So what’s next for Gay Water? Spencer says, “We have a lot of exciting news in the year to come. We have new products, new retail locations, which hopefully we’ll be able to announce soon, and new partnerships.” To stay up to date with Spencer and Gay Water, head to


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